I began my religious schooling, as I began so many other endeavors—including life itself—completely without volition. In the Roman Catholic grammar school and church that I attended from age six, SS Peter & Paul, part of each day was devoted to catechism—basic religious training, Catholic style, 1940. Each day before school we went to church to “hear” mass (in a mass one has the sayer, the priest, and the hearers, the laity). The church, a rather grand one it seemed to me then, was just across a small street from the school. We attended mass every morning before school.
I felt a certain liking for the ceremonial aspects of church and I remember especially liking the missal itself, a book which each of us carried to and from church. It contained the prayers and responses for the mass. It had a soft leather cover imprinted in gold leaf, fine, and very thin, paper pages imprinted with elaborate typefaces and figures and a small ribbon which kept your place in the book as the year progressed. The book satisfied a desire for orderliness in me, in the way that an old ledger might be agreeable to a bookkeeper. Though I can’t say I felt religious conviction in any very strong way—it seemed to be mainly something that one did—it was not at all unpleasant in those early years.
On Thursdays we made our confessions—unfortunately never again to be such innocent ones as then—so that on Fridays, after fasting beforehand, we could take communion at mass, receiving the “host,” a small, thin, wafer of flat bread imprinted with a holy pattern of some sort that in those days the priest laid gently on one’s outstretched tongue—we were not permitted to touch it with our fingers—as one knelt at the altar rail which separated the body of the church from the altar area. If one had been very good, confession of course was unnecessary, but most of us had to go, separating the pupils early-on, and publicly, into the truly holy and the still aspiring.
The fasting before communion was explained to us as necessary because with this precaution the host, not merely a symbol of the body of Jesus Christ but literally transmogrified into his flesh through the mediation of the priest—though it still seemed to have a breadlike taste—could then, if one became sick, not accidentally be vomited up, which would then require the intercession of a priest to clean it up.
The wine, having been transfigured into the blood of Christ, and at that time denied to the laity, was reserved for the priest who took it once during the mass. It was poured by the altar boy into the chalice at the side of the altar, with a little water, from two glass cruets. Later, when I became an altar boy myself, I noticed that our priest seemed to lean rather more heavily on the wine than on the water. I have since come to feel that a religion receptive to wine is inherently superior to a teetotaling one, somehow more robust and human.
When we went to school from the church after mass on Fridays, sweet rolls were brought in and, breaking our fast, we ate them and drank small bottles of milk at our school desks. I preferred the chocolate milk. It was a good time. On Sunday, parents generally attended church together with their children at one mass or another. Ours was a sizable parish so there were several masses on Sundays.
Occasionally studies were suspended and we went to church during the school day to practice with the whole school for processions that took place on certain holy days like Christmas and Easter, the priest and the nuns directing and rehearsing us. It was a little bit of a lark to get out of the one room at school that your grade occupied all day long and do something different. I remember once providing assistance to someone who, several weeks before Easter, was preparing palm fronds for Palm Sunday by fanning them out on the concrete floor of the church basement and then holding them in place that way by putting sand between the leaves; by Easter Sunday they had gotten the message and stayed beautifully fanned out without the sand. There is a lot of ceremony in the Roman Catholic church.
As to catechism, which we learned in school from the nuns, at first it seemed fine and unexceptionable to my virgin ears, but gradually, over the years, it seemed to me that more and more things just didn’t make sense. Why would a supposedly all-powerful God permit things like war and natural catastrophes; one would think that at least some of the people who perished had to be good people. The nun’s attempt to rationalize this issue was unconvincing to me. As I recall, it went something like this: We’re all going to die sometime anyway, so if an earthquake was visited upon us, it was just God’s way of taking a few people rather earlier than they had expected. Yes, but what about the ones who weren’t quite prepared? Well, that’s why you had to be prepared at all times. That’s why we go to confession. That’s why we say our prayers. All questions had been answered and tied with a pretty ribbon. It was obvious that I was not the first to have asked them.
The whole notion of God staging a “play” by having Jesus born, then suffer and die—crucified, no less—and then to be resurrected, also seemed kind of far-fetched to me; surely there had to be a simpler method for someone that was “all-powerful.” I obviously did not understand the symbolism of it all. But this notion of all-powerfulness and all-knowingness was constantly drilled into our young brains, and it seemed to make sense: obviously someone who could make the earth and the heavens, and us as well, had to be pretty powerful, yet a lot of the time God seemed to go to extremes for reasons the nuns just couldn’t explain to my by then skeptical ears. But the notion of a God that was not all-powerful seemed to be a contradiction in terms. Surely if God was not all-powerful that created more questions than it answered.
Finally, in eighth grade, a curious routine began, one which we had never before witnessed in school: the good nuns began recruiting girls for the sisterhood, talking up “vocations” in front of the whole class, boys as well as girls listening. I suppose there was nothing else to do with us boys, and for all I knew our turn would come later. Several girls seemed interested. Now, by eighth grade the ranking of one’s peers on some obscure but irrevocable scale was able to be calibrated by us with an exquisite precision, a skill that far exceeded that which we brought to our scholastic studies, and it was clear, there could be no doubt, potential nuns, and by extension, nuns, were not in the brilliant grouping but seemed rather in the needful category. This new information called further into question my by then wavering belief in what had been drilled into our heads by the nuns for eight years. Over the years my innocent attraction to ceremony and ritual gradually gave way to my greater interest, and confidence in, reason and thought.
There was another factor besides my budding intellect that led to my apostasy: my parents. While never, ever, saying anything directly, it had become quite clear to me over time that they believed that all this religious stuff was not to be taken too literally. I do not think it was an integral part of their lives except to the extent that they felt a certain amount of religion was good for one, beneficial as part of the development of one’s general social fabric. In support of this guess on my part I will mention that, immediately after the Sunday-morning church service, my parents, my brother and I in tow, usually went on to something they euphemistically called “Sunday School,” a small gathering of their like-minded friends for a few rounds of cocktails and chatter before separating for their families’ afternoon Sunday dinners. The conversation at Sunday school did not include religious subjects just homely gossip, laughter and camaraderie, which I think was for them integral with the more theological aspects of religion.
In our small town the Catholic church had only a grade school, not a high school. I suppose the church’s thinking, and it seems to me quite reasonable, was that with limited resources it’s better to get them while they’re young. So I attended the “public” high school where the whole subject of religion sort of melted away and, though I still perfunctorily attended mass on Sunday with my parents and my brother, any serious thought on the subject of religion became dormant as I tried to deal with the new challenges that go with high school including, all of a sudden, a new way of looking at girls. We were a little slow in those days, or at least I was.
Later, at some point in my early twenties, and after I had been married, I again became interested in things intellectual. I can’t recall just why. I suppose that this interest just kicks in when it’s time—if it’s going to. Who knows why one learns to walk or talk or fall in love, or think. Events like these seem to be beyond our deliberate control. Anyway, part of this reawakening involved more serious thought about the subject of God, and I tried to analyze why I was so doubtful. At the same time I began to ask myself why the belief in a God, or gods, is so widespread, penetrating virtually every human society, and I came to think that people largely want to believe, and some few need to believe in order to maintain their equilibrium. However this didn’t seem to be the case for me and in this way, jointly rationalizing why I didn’t believe and why they did, I became confirmed in my apostasy, and comfortable in it.
Incidentally, I don’t like to say I am an atheist, though I am. I rather prefer to think of myself simply as not superstitious. While many people relate the word superstition with voodoo, Transylvanian old wives tales, magic and other outré beliefs, I take it as a word that implies events beyond the normal or rational world. I would prefer to call myself a rationalist. In some satisfying way this terminology seems to put the onus on the theists to explain why they believe in such an irrational belief system, rather than on me to explain why I don’t. It’s a small point.